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With the possibility that, in November 2016, a woman could be elected president of the U.S., we look back at the long and often difficult history of women in politics.
The first book I ever published was a biography of Susan B. Anthony in 1984. There was much in the research that disturbed me: the husband of a married woman had the right to her wages and inheritance and authority over her children. For the unmarried woman, there was less status, slightly more freedom, but in most cases, money or property left to her would be administered by a male guardian who could dispense it at his whim. And, of course, women in the nineteenth century could not vote. If that book opened my eyes to the inequality women faced, my most recent nonfiction book, A Woman in the House (and Senate): How Women Came to the United States Congress, Broke Down Barriers, and Changed the Country, published by Abrams Books for Young Readers in 2014, reminded me of the long and difficult struggle endured by the diverse and inspiring women who hammered down the doors of inequality in Congress. Some of their stories were amazing, beginning with Jeannette Rankin, the first female member of Congress, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Montana in 1916. (Montana gave its women the vote four years before universal suffrage.) Passionate for peace, she was one of 56 in Congress to vote against authorizing WWI. She was the only person to vote against declaring war against Japan in 1941. And in 1968, at the age of 87, private-citizen Rankin led 5,000 women through the streets of Washington, D.C., protesting the war in Vietnam.
In 1950, Republican senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine rose on the floor of the Senate and made a Declaration of Conscience, accusing fellow senator Joseph McCarthy of “selfish political exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance” and smearing people by labeling them Communists. She was one of the few willing to stand up to him. As women started coming to Congress in (slightly) more robust numbers, congressmen, who had treated them (mostly) politely in past decades, became dismayed. When Michigan’s Martha Griffiths arrived in the House in 1955, one of the male representatives said to her glumly, “At this rate, it won’t be any time before you ladies have the majority here.”
Griffiths couldn’t believe her ears. She asked the Library of Congress to figure out just how long it would take women to have the majority at the rate they were entering. The answer came back: 435 years!
Many of the women who served were firsts: Patsy Mink of Hawaii, the first woman of color; Shirley Chisholm of New York, the first African American woman. And there were other firsts as well: Yvonne Burke of California was the first woman to have a baby while serving in Congress. Patricia Schroeder of Ohio was the first to wear pants on the House floor!
As inspiring as it was to write A Woman in the House (and Senate), it also made me realize how few women’s lives are chronicled in books for youth, and many of those who are—Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, Clara Barton—have been written about repeatedly. This paucity is especially true of women in politics. Yet without those indomitable women, the arc of history would have bent far more slowly toward justice. The bibliography below offers titles about political women who have influenced their countries’ policies here and abroad.
Abigail Adams in Her Own Words. By Belton Blair. illus. 2015. Gareth Stevens, lib. ed., $26.60 (9781433998706). Gr. 4–6.
Adams’ well-known feminism as well as her antislavery positions are on display here, in a book that focuses on her writings, along with giving historical context to her time.
Aung San Suu Kyi. By Sherry O’Keefe. illus. 2012. Morgan Reynolds, $28.95 (9781599351681). Gr. 7–12.
Part of the outstanding Champions of Freedom series, this details the life of the Myanmar activist, the daughter of the country’s assassinated leader. It describes how the Nobel Prize winner sacrificed life with her husband and children to fight her country’s repressive government.
Ballots for Belva: The True Story of a Woman’s Race for the Presidency. By Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. Illus. by Courtney A. Martin. 2008. Abrams, $16.95 (9780810971103). Gr. 1–3.
Belva Lockwood challenged gender roles in nineteenth-century America as the first woman lawyer to appear before the Supreme Court and the first woman to “officially” run for president, even though women did not yet have the right to vote. Digital-and-pencil illustrations portray her life, both political and personal.
Condoleezza Rice: A Memoir of My Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and Me. By Condoleezza Rice. illus. 2010. Delacorte, $16.99 (9780385738798). Gr. 7–9.
This slightly distilled version of the former secretary of state’s adult autobiography hits all the high points of Rice’s impressive life, including her childhood. Her parents convinced her that “even if she couldn’t have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, she could be president of the United States.” Filled with fascinating photos, this will give readers a real sense of what life was like in the segregated South.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World. By Penny Colman. illus. 2011. Holt, $18.99 (9780805082937). Gr. 7–10.
The lives of these two very different women led to one of the greatest feminist collaborations in history. This well-researched dual biography puts their lives and causes in historical context.
Golda Meir. By Jean F. Blashfield. illus. 2011. Marshall Cavendish, $27.95 (9780761449607). Gr. 7–10.
Political history forms the compelling background to this entry in the Leading Women series. This focuses on Meir’s public roles in the Zionist movement and the establishment of the state of Israel and then as prime minister from 1969 to 1974. Drawn from her autobiography, the text features many personal quotes as well as memories of her earliest life. Readers will be struck by Meir’s conflicting views of herself as both a heroic idealist and a failure.
Heart on Fire: Susan B. Anthony Votes for President. By Ann Malaspina. Illus. by Steven James. 2012. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (9780807531884). Gr. 2–4.
Focusing on one aspect of Anthony’s public life, this describes the suffragette’s attempt to vote in an 1887 election, which led to her arrest, trial, and fine. The spare, almost poetic text is well matched by the softly realistic art.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight. By Kathleen Krull. Illus. by Amy June Bates. 2008. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (9781481451130). Gr. 1–3.
This appealing picture-book biography shows Clinton as someone who pursues her goals with a single-mindedness others lack. An effective five-page author’s note champions the subject and provides inspiring messages (“Take the lead role in your own life.”). Stylish retro artwork works well with the text.
Indira Gandhi. By Sara Schupack. illus. 2013. Cavendish Square, lib. ed., $39.93 (9780761449553). Gr. 6–9.
Part of the Leading Women series, this focuses on the background and achievements of Gandhi, and it ends with her death by assassination. Readers who aren’t familiar with Gandhi’s life will learn a lot here. Though Gandhi’s story is complicated, helpful sidebars fill in pieces of the engaging narrative.
Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer. By Gretchen Woelfle. illus. 2007. Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, $18.95 (9781590784372). Gr. 6–9.
Rankin, a woman ahead of her time, gets a full biographical treatment here. The writing standard is high throughout, capturing Rankin’s varied pursuits. The book’s accessible format features meaty sidebars and well-chosen photographs and historical artifacts.
Madam President: The Extraordinary, True (and Evolving) Story of Women in Politics. By Catherine Thimmesh. Illus. by Douglas B. Jones. 2004. Houghton, $8.95 (9780618971435). Gr. 5–7.
Delightful and informative in equal parts, this is a collective biography of women who took up the fight for women’s political rights. Divided into groups such as suffragettes, First Ladies, and politicians in the U.S and around the world, the profiles, incisively written, cover Edith Wilson, Jeannette Rankin, Frances Perkins, Nancy Pelosi, and Margaret Thatcher. Eye-catching illustrations, too.
Margaret Chase Smith: A Woman for President. By Lynn Plourde. Illus. by David McPhail. 2008. Charlesbridge, $16.95 (9781580892346). Gr. 3–5.
The life of the senator from Maine is chronicled in this book for younger readers. It covers her early life and moves swiftly through her exemplary career in Congress. The watercolor-and-ink pictures face each page of text. An informative afterword rounds out the treatment.
Our Eleanor: A Scrapbook Look at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Remarkable Life. By Candace Fleming. illus. 2005. Simon & Schuster, $19.95 (9780689865442). Gr. 6–9.
This takes a pastiche approach to humanizing a legendary life. Through anecdotes and archival photos drawn from an assortment of sources, Fleming introduces the neglected little girl who grew up to become one of the most admired women in American history. The details of Roosevelt’s life are certainly riveting; however, Fleming’s approach is probably best suited for use in conjunction with more traditional narratives, such as Russell Freedman’s Newbery Honor Book, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery (1993).
Shirley Chisholm. By Lucia Raatma. illus. 2010. Marshall Cavendish, $27.95 (9780761449539). Gr. 5–8.
Chisholm, the first African American woman to enter Congress, was a no-nonsense leader, secure in her own accomplishments. Beyond merely reciting the facts of her subject’s life, the author vividly explains what was happening in the country and explores what prompted Chisholm to run a serious race for the presidency in 1972 despite the strikes against her—her race and her sex. The well-chosen photographs extend the text.
A Woman for President: The Story of Victoria Woodhull. By Kathleen Krull. Illus. by Jane Dyer. 2004. Walker, $8.99 (9780802796158). Gr. 3–6.
Woodhull was quite the woman. A teenage career as a spiritualist led her to client Cornelius Vanderbilt, and her stock advice made them both millions. Rich enough to move on her ideas about women’s equality, she ran for president against Ulysses S. Grant. Krull’s engaging narrative contrasts the fettered lives most women led at the time with Woodhull’s varied activities. Dignified watercolors subdue the often raucous events.
A Woman in the House (and Senate): How Women Came to the United States Congress, Broke Down Barriers, and Changed the Country. By Ilene Cooper. Illus. by Elizabeth Baddeley. 2014. Abrams, $24.95 (9781419710360). Gr. 5–8.
More than a century of U.S. history is the backdrop for this wide-ranging volume that spotlights women’s pivotal roles in politics. Along with profiles of female trailblazers, this folds in essential historical context as well as an explanation of basic civics concepts. The book is illustrated with photographs and archival material as well as lively artwork.
Ilene Cooper, Booklist Contributing Editor, is the author of more than 35 books for children and young adults.
The following Common Core-linked activities offer suggestions for sharing the titles in the accompanying bibliography, Women in Politics, with middle-school students. You can find out more about the Common Core State Standards at www.corestandards.org.
In the Classroom: A Woman in the House (and Senate), by Ilene Cooper, includes an excellent section on Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress. After students have read Cooper’s biography of Rankin, have them read Gretchen Woelfle’s Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer and discuss the different ways in which both texts chronicle the events and circumstances that marked Rankin’s path to her historic seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Common Core Connections
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.6.9. Compare and contrast one author’s presentation of events with that of another (e.g., a memoir written by and a biography on the same person).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.3. Identify key steps in a text’s description of a process related to history/social studies (e.g., how a bill becomes law, how interest rates are raised or lowered).
In the Classroom: Candace Fleming’s Our Eleanor: A Scrapbook Look at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Remarkable Life is illustrated with a rich collection of archival images and excerpts from primary source material. As a class, discuss the difference between primary and secondary sources and then select an event in Roosevelt’s life that is depicted in both words and images in Fleming’s title. Discuss how students gain new information about Roosevelt and her times from text and images. For an additional activity, have students read Fleming’s account of how Roosevelt responded after singer Marian Anderson was denied the right to perform at Washington D.C’s Constitution Hall. Then, have student’s contrast Fleming’s text with Russell Freedman’s account of the same events, from Marian Anderson’s viewpoint, in Marian Anderson: A Voice Uplifted (2008).
CCSS.ELA.-Literacy.RH.6–8.9. Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.3. Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text (e.g., how ideas influence individuals or events, or how individuals influence ideas or events).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.2. Analyze the main ideas and supporting details presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how the ideas clarify a topic, text, or issue under study.
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